Big Ten Adds Notre Dame… for Hockey


In a move that came out of nowhere, the Big Ten will be adding Notre Dame as a hockey member starting in 2017-18. A few quick thoughts on an otherwise sad day with all that has happened in Belgium:

  • This is by far the most surprising move that I’ve seen from the Big Ten (and possibly any conference) ever since I started following conference realignment. The timing of the Maryland/Rutgers expansion was stealthy, but anyone that has followed this blog since 2010 had been tracking those schools as high on the Big Ten candidacy list. Johns Hopkins coming to the Big Ten as an affiliate member was a natural fit academically and in terms of the need to get a 6th lacrosse member to obtain NCAA auto-qualifier status. In contrast, Notre Dame joining the ACC as a non-football member and then placing its hockey program in the extremely strong Hockey East, seemed to be give the Irish everything that it wanted in preserving football independence, membership in strong conferences for its other sports and kowtowing to the segment of its alumni base that wanted to cut off all possible relationships with the Big Ten. Meanwhile, the Big Ten seemed to move on from any possibility of Notre Dame joining the league in any capacity. To see this new arrangement come up is quite remarkable even if it’s just for hockey. Ice hockey could be thawing Big Ten – Notre Dame relations in the way that baseball helped that U.S. – Cuba relations.
  • Notre Dame coming into the Big Ten creates a 7-team hockey league, which is unwieldy for scheduling purposes. The discussion naturally is going to turn to which school comes in as #8 and it continues to look like Arizona State. The Big Ten and Sun Devils have been contemplating possible membership for over a year and I discussed it in depth during last season’s NCAA Tournament. Pretty much everything that I stated a year ago still applies today (minus the part where I didn’t believe that Hockey East members like Notre Dame would join the league as associate members), where Arizona State hits a lot of metrics that the Big Ten is looking for at an individual school level with its key Phoenix market location and the league overall seems to open to adding more affiliate schools. Think about MIT joining the Big Ten for rowing or Rice bringing its top level baseball program to the conference. There are a lot more possibilities for academically-aligned schools in the non-revenue sports.
  • Hockey fans that might be pushing for a powerhouse hockey program like North Dakota to join the Big Ten are engaging in the classic behavior of thinking like a fan instead of a university president. The academic, market and demographic needs of the conference are completely different than on-the-ice considerations. I’m sure the Big Ten would be very open to the top hockey schools in New England, such as Boston University and/or Boston College, but that is more driven by the league’s interest in the Boston market than competitiveness.
  • Speaking of markets, an underrated aspect of this move for the Big Ten is that it finally has a hockey presence in its most important market and alumni home of Chicago. Unfortunately, I don’t have an extra $100 million laying around for me to start-up a new Division I hockey program at Illinois despite it having had one of the most competitive hockey club teams and strongest fan bases for the past two decades. Meanwhile, Northwestern has many other athletic funding priorities in building new facilities, so hockey doesn’t seem to be on the radar. The Big Ten would love to rotate its hockey tournament into the United Center in Chicago to go along with Detroit and Minneapolis/St. Paul, especially with the basketball tournament needing to be outside of Chicago more often with the league’s push into the New York and Washington, DC markets. Note that the 2017 NCAA Frozen Four will be played at the United Center and sponsored by Notre Dame.
  • I’m someone that takes Notre Dame at its word that the school will stay independent in football. There is no “forcing” the Irish to join any league and its independence is as much of an institutional identity issue for the school’s alumni as it is a football issue. I don’t see this hockey membership having any correlation with Notre Dame possibly joining the Big Ten as a full-time football member down the road.
  • That being said, the bigger picture issue is whether the Big Ten would consider offering Notre Dame a full non-football membership in the manner of the ACC (and the old Big East before them). Notre Dame’s agreement with the ACC ends in 2025, so this is more long-range thinking for the conference. Would the Big Ten offer Notre Dame a deal where it would be a basketball and non-revenue sports member in exchange for, say, 6 football games against B1G opponents each season (compared to the Irish commitment to play 5 ACC opponents per year now)? Previously, I never thought that would even be an option on the table since the Big Ten is as much an “all for one and one for all” league as Notre Dame is an independent school, yet this hockey arrangement legitimately puts that into play. The Big Ten really didn’t care about Notre Dame’s relationship with the old Big East, but the ACC deal with the Irish might have been perceived by Jim Delany and others in Rosemont as much more of a potential threat down the road. This is a huge shift in the Big Ten’s thinking, where there is now a large crack in the league’s decades-long insistence for Notre Dame to be “all in” or “all out”.

The upshot is that this is great for Notre Dame in terms of leverage against both the ACC and Big Ten in the future. The ACC might have gotten a bit cocky with how close it thought it was with Notre Dame over the past couple of years and (at least in some quarters) deluding themselves in thinking that they’ll eventually join as a football member. However, the Irish are now openly stating that they have plenty of options. If Notre Dame could get the Big Ten to budge on hockey membership, it’s no longer a stretch at all that the B1G could eventually make a play for Irish basketball and other non-football sports along with a more robust football scheduling arrangement.

(Image from The Daily Domer)

Big Ten Expansion Hits the Ice

After around two decades of speculation and proposals, Penn State will be announcing today that it’s adding a Division I hockey program.  Now, as someone that attended Illinois, which only has a club hockey team, I have a fairly rudimentary understanding the hierarchy of college hockey that’s a bit different than the worlds of football and basketball.  (Note that the woman that cuts my hair lived in Grand Forks up until a couple of years ago, so I do at least have a monthly discussion about North Dakota hockey.)  Still, this is an important story from a Big Ten and national perspective since Penn State’s new program is going to have massive implications on the hockey world, and by extension, the overall athletic programs of a whole slew of universities.

Make no mistake about it: there WILL be a Big Ten hockey conference.  There is no “if” here.  A large contingent of college hockey fans want nothing to do with the concept and are trying to talk themselves into thinking that Penn State will simply be satisfied in joining the CCHA or that Minnesota politicians will intervene a la Texas pols with the Big 12, but that’s just wishful thinking on their part.  We can talk all day about North Dakota’s and Denver’s rivalries with Minnesota and Wisconsin in the WCHA and how the smaller Michigan-based schools financially depend upon getting annual visits from Michigan and Michigan State every year, yet it will be of no use because (a) Penn State wouldn’t be adding a very expensive sport if it didn’t have assurances that a Big Ten hockey league (and the TV opportunities and ticket sales that come with it) would come to fruition and (b) pretty much all of the powers that be in the Big Ten except for maybe Minnesota wants the league to form BADLY.  Last year, the Big Ten actually had discussions with Miami, Bowling Green and Western Michigan about becoming hockey-only affiliate members.  Think about that for a second: considering how much we concentrated on how only elite and financially viable football programs could justify Big Ten expansion in that sport, Jim Delany and company have been so interested in forming a hockey league that they were considering to add MAC schools in order to make it happen.  That’s a pretty clear indication of the Big Ten’s modus operandi with respect to hockey.  I’m sorry WCHA and CCHA partisans – the loyalties of all of these schools are to the Big Ten first and foremost.

The Big Ten Network is certainly an important factor in the Big Ten’s desire to form a hockey conference sooner than later.  Unlike Big Ten-sponsored sports, the television rights for hockey games are controlled by the various hockey conferences (in terms of relevance to the Big Ten, the CCHA and WCHA) and individual schools can negotiate their own TV packages.  This is a pretty good deal for a school like Minnesota, which is the dominant school in a hockey-crazed market and where the Gophers have a lucrative deal with Fox Sports Net North, but it hasn’t been great for the availability of hockey games on the Big Ten Network.  (I’m going to talk about Minnesota a lot in this post since that’s the Big Ten school where hockey is arguably the most important while having very strong WCHA rivalries.)  Hockey is the clear #3 TV college sport in Big Ten markets after football and basketball, yet the lack of control over hockey TV rights means that there’s only a smattering of games on the network every year.  By forming the Big Ten hockey conference, all of those TV rights would be under control of the Big Ten and the conference can place more games on the Big Ten Network and even sell more widely distributed packages to outlets like ESPN.

Hockey is fairly valuable programming for the Big Ten Network.  Unlike baseball as of now, the hockey programs in the Big Ten are national powers and have fan bases that generate revenue and TV eyeballs in solid amounts.  Hockey games will almost certainly fill Friday prime time slots every week (when football and basketball games in the Big Ten are never played, anyway) and fill out an array of Saturday and possibly even Sunday time slots.  Also, in terms of subscriber revenue, hockey is going to provide more leverage for the BTN to garner higher rates in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan from cable providers in the future.

(EDIT: In addition, and maybe most importantly, hockey is critical for the Big Ten Network in terms of building its online platform.  While all conference football and men’s basketball games are shown on television, most hockey games will likely end up streamed over the web, so that sport will become the primary driver for the BTN’s online content.  College hockey is actually a great vehicle for selling online streaming packages because it has a “sizable niche” audience – small enough where it doesn’t make financial sense to put every single game on TV, but large and passionate enough that the BTN can still make money selling those non-TV games online.)

Is hockey power Minnesota going to like giving up its local TV deals and WCHA rivalries?  Probably not, but the Gophers are going to get ZERO slack when their football program, which just suffered an embarrassing loss to South Dakota, is making literally tens of millions of dollars per year off of the backs of Ohio State and Penn State.  A school like Penn State risked a whole lot of local TV opportunities for football which dwarf regional hockey deals in order to support the Big Ten Network, so the expectation is the very least that Minnesota could do is allow the Big Ten leverage the one sport where the Gophers have a legit marquee team.

Now, the long-term hope is that a Big Ten hockey conference could spur other schools with high-level club programs such as Illinois and Indiana to create Division I programs, as well.  In fact, the Gopher hockey beat writer of the Star Tribune pointed out that Illinois in particular is being named as a potential hockey school.  As someone that loved going to club hockey games in Champaign (although I’m pretty sure the rink was constructed at some point right before the downfall of the Roman Empire), the prospect of an Illini varsity hockey program is spectacular.  Granted, it will be difficult enough to raise enough money for new facilities and enough scholarships to satisfy both the hockey team itself and additional women’s sports in order to comply with Title IX, but having a Big Ten hockey conference in place was the only way that adding hockey could even conceivably be an option for Illinois.  Neither Illinois nor any other Big Ten school is going to lay out all of that money so that it can play a bunch of games against the Ferris States of the world – they all need Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota to come to town annually to make it worthwhile.

The flipside is the potential fallout in the WCHA and CCHA when the Big Ten teams leave.  Dave Starman of USCHO has a better evaluation of the possible domino effect than I could ever put together, so be sure to check him out.  (The one caveat is he’s still holding out the possibility of Penn State joining the CCHA, which I see as a futile discussion.)  Can a school such as Lake Superior State survive without home dates from the Big Ten schools in the CCHA?  Could this be a preview of Notre Dame’s ultimate intentions for other sports, where it has a choice of staying the Midwest-based CCHA, head west to the WCHA, maybe head out to Hockey East to give it an East Coast presence, or create a entirely new conference altogether?  (How about a conference headed up by Notre Dame, Boston College, North Dakota and Denver?  That would be an extremely strong contender to the Big Ten.)  The possibilities are as endless as all of the permutations put together of BCS conference alignments in the blogosphere over this past year.

Still, the ultimate upshot is that college hockey is going to get a massive boost in exposure when the Big Ten forms its league and elevates the sport across its TV platforms.  Kudos to Penn State for taking a leap into Division I hockey that is going to open up opportunities for Illinois and other Big Ten schools.

(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111)

(Image from You Hoser)